Quote of the week

This is from page 145 of a book I’ve just finished, Carl Sagan’s posthumously published (2006) The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (Penguin Press, New York). The book, edited by Ann Druyan—Sagan’s third wife—was transcribed from audiotapes of Sagan’s Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow in 1985.

Sagan’s title is of course a play on William James’s own published Gifford Lectures, the very famous The Varieties of Religious Experience.

“When you buy a used car, it is insufficient to remember that you badly need a car.  After all, it has to work.  It is insufficient to say that the used-car salesman is a friendly fellow. What you generally do is kick the tires, you look at the odometer, you open up the hood. If you do not feel yourself expert in automobile engines, you bring along a friend who is. And you do this for something as unimportant as an automobile.  But on issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, on the origin of the world, on the nature of human beings, on those issues should we not insist upon at least equally skeptical scrutiny?”

This book is as anti-religious as anything Dawkins or Hitchens ever published, though the tone is a bit softer. I’m curious, though, why Sagan wasn’t attacked and reviled in his day for “militant atheism.”

UPDATE: Reader Jerry Adler calls our attention to the 1997 piece he wrote in Newsweek on Sagan’s atheism.


  1. gbjames
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    He wasn’t attacked because his comments weren’t supported by a wave of other atheists standing up in support. So the theists and accomodationist types weren’t provoked into a defensive reaction.

    • hyperdeath
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      That’s pretty much it. However, I think that some of the bile from the Accommodationists is due to them envying the Gnu’s success. “Your books are so shrill and aggressive” is another way of saying “your books outsell mine by a ratio of a hundred to one”.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Ever since first hearing about “new” atheists I’ve realized the only thing new is the internet. This new forum allows us to speak in a louder voice. As more atheists realize there is a whole community* out there, they add their voices.

        No one’s saying anything new, we just have gnu ways to say it.

        *A community that is no longer separated geographically.

        • Filippo
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

          Si, the village atheists are no longer incommunicado.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

        Plus, 9/11 and the Bush reaction left atheists generally sick of religious extremism. All main anti-religious books by four horsemen came out after that and contain many references to that extremism, so firing atheist into a more outspoken rejection of religious bull. Then add the defensive stance of moderate religion that failed to criticise the extremists sufficiently at the time – embarrassed silence being the most generous description; complicity in silence being more accurate.

  2. Becca Stareyes
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    You know, I remember Sagan using the car analogy in Demon=Haunted World as well with respect to pseudoscience.

    I wonder if it’s because Sagan was an astronomer, not a biologist — that Dawkins comes in with a hostile audience because he is an evolutionary biologist. Even though astronomy is just as dependent on an old universe and processes that take billions of years as biology is — any astronomer worth her salt would see this as a universe that looks billions of years old, and it takes a special kind of compartmentalization to justify anything but ‘because it is billions of years old’. Somehow astronomical amazingness is translated into ‘God made these awesome things for us’, while biological amazingness is ‘science is trying to make us less special and contradicting Scripture’.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Don’t forget that astronomers that compartmentalised do exist.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

        Yep. A community college that I attended several years ago had an astronomy professor and chemistry professor who was a young-earth creationist.

        • Arnie
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          Well, that only speaks to horrible failure of intermediate and higher education system.

          • Filippo
            Posted April 17, 2012 at 4:06 am | Permalink

            “Well, that only speaks to horrible failure of intermediate and higher education system.”

            At the community college level one can be a professor without being a Ph.D., or at least an “instructor.” Or perhaps instructors are called professors without much discrimination by students. I imagine a stink is made if someone takes on the moniker of “Doctor” without having earned a Ph.D.

            It’s possible to toe the academic line, stay below the radar, and secretly believe what one would rather believe despite ones education and training. I’m reminded of the story of Harvard geology Ph.D. Kurt Wise as related by Richard Dawkins. No doubt, not a few medical doctors and engineers are YEC’s. If a middle schooler attends class predisposed, by influences outside of school, to deny the evidence for evolution for example, is it only school/college personnel who bear any personal responsibility for that situation?

  3. bernardhurley
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I’m curious, though, why Sagan wasn’t attacked and reviled in his day for “militant atheism.”

    “Militant atheism” is a fairly recent term invented by religious folk who suddenly realise that more and more people are turning away from religion and have to find the culprits for bringing about this dismal state of affairs. People like Bertrand Russell and A J Ayer were just atheists; if they were alive today they would be militant atheists.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      And Robert Ingersoll.


      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        As others have pointed out, it’s a combination of internet, youtube, frequent TV appearances, popular books and doubtless other factors. The only debate that I ever heard of (and which I can still find on the internet) where Bertrand Russell took on a religious person was his radio debate with Frederick Copleston about the existence of god. A transcript and excerpt from the broadcast is here.

    • Darth Dog
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Bertrand Russell was certainly attacked for his atheism at CCNY.

      • bernardhurley
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that had slipped my memory. But the general consensus at the time seems to be that it was CCNY that was in the wrong. A number of prominent Roman Catholics supported Russell.

  4. J.J.E.
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” is even more anti-religious. I collected dozens of quotes that were far more extreme than this from it. Sagan really was quite critical of religion. I think the reason he isn’t viewed in the same way as Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. is because he was very careful to maintain a respectful tone. It wasn’t the level of criticism but rather the presence of respect that makes the difference. Apparently, the faithful don’t mind being criticized so much as they really want their egos stroked by respect. However, I think one of the major problems is that they are accustomed to receiving unearned respect. I’m glad that people today are emboldened to deny them that.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I think the reason he isn’t viewed in the same way as Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. is because he was very careful to maintain a respectful tone. It wasn’t the level of criticism but rather the presence of respect that makes the difference.

      You may be right, but I think it is indicative of the success of that approach that even atheists aren’t aware of the degree of Sagan’s religious antipathy.

      In other words, being polite when making arguments against religion means that those arguments get unnoticed, and thus have little effect.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        And against woo in general. That link is the tale of David Colquhon versus homeopathy in universities: ridicule was the only thing that actually worked.

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          Why have I not read anything by David Colquhoun before? I like this man. A lot.


      • J.J.E.
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Yeah, it is amazing how many people imagine Sagan as the Mister Rogers of skepticism. Or maybe he was…?


      • gluonspring
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        Might be true. Though it had a huge effect on me. I attribute my loss of faith very directly to Carl Sagan, and the Cosmos series specifically.

        Anecdote +1.

        I think one reason his arguments were unnoticed was the small size of his audience. I have a strong feeling that only the geek/science/sci-fi crowd watched Cosmos or read his books. Perhaps one thing that is different about Dawkins, Hitchens, and so on is that they are making themselves noticed by non-geeks.

        • Clive
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          I find that hard to believe. Cosmos was a huge hit when it was first shown on TV.

          And personally, I first read Sagan when I was about 13 – very popular, mass-produced books. (This was before Cosmos – I guess about 1973). At the time I was a big fan of the Erich von Danniken ‘Space Gods’ stuff – and Sagan switched me off all that in about two pages of devastating critique.

          ‘The Varieties of Scientific Experience’ etc obviously are a bit more esoteric and nerdy than ‘The God Delusion’. But ‘Cosmos’, which isn’t, quite overtly blames Christianity (or Platonism via Christianity) for the scientific revolution not happening 2,000 years earlier.

          • Filippo
            Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Just congenially curious and reflective – the words “geek,” “nerd,” “wonk” – are they compliments?

            The grand opening to the wonderful new addition to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science is this coming weekend. (Neil deGrasse Tyson coming to the area in the next week or two for the NC Science Festival.) The local newspaper write-up repeatedly employs “geek,” “nerd,” “wonk,” as in apparently trying to convince and reassure the local populace that the new addition, and Fair, are not accurately described by those terms. (The economic benefits of science are emphasized; not so much the “numinous” and awe and wonder. (I assume Tyson will do his part to provide a corrective to that imbalance.)

            (One can understand why someone might look upon “Bright” as a term with which one might stand ones ground with the Philistines.)

            Maybe a good replacement term would be “STEM” – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics [-Literate]?

            In the last few months where someone somewhere is advocating changing STEM TO STEAM, adding the Arts (Humanities).

            What are their antonyms? (The closest I’ve come to an antonym is “jock,” as in athlete or the sports enthusiast-obsessive.) A-geek, a-nerd, a-wonk, vis-a-vis “a-theist” and “a-fairiest”?

            How about “Ignoramus” as an antonym? “Bread-and-Circuser”? “Willfully Uncurious”?

            • Dan L.
              Posted April 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

              Just congenially curious and reflective – the words “geek,” “nerd,” “wonk” – are they compliments?

              Pretty much. Now that almost everyone uses the internet almost all the time nerds and geeks are credible. “Wonk” was always a bit of a compliment in a way; it means basically the same thing as “nerd” but with connotations of utility and effectiveness.

              Another part of it is that geek culture is now very widespread. Look how many recent big-budget Hollywood movies are sci fi, fantasy, or based on comic books (almost all the big ones in the last few years). I see people link to xkcd cartoons at least a few times a week. Joss Whedon became incredibly popular doing a TV series based on a highschool/horror/comedy movie about vampires and slaying them and a few other sci fi-ish projects. A lot of major network news is generated by the hijinks of Anonymous and offshoots like Lulzsec.

              Compare to “thug.” Was once a straight-out insult, now it’s a little ambiguous. It’s not purely positive (implications of violence, amorality, etc.) but has a number of positive implications (hipness, toughness, credibility, etc.). Similarly, “geek” and “nerd” still have some negative connotations but fewer and fewer as geek culture becomes more mainstream.

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          I was already studying physics at university when Cosmos first aired in the UK, and already an atheist (although it would be a long while before I acknowledged that label), so it didn’t have a significant impact on me, but I did hugely enjoy it. I also bought the book, although I’m not sure now if I ever read it…


          • Voltaire 2
            Posted April 18, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

            According to the Preface in the companion book to the Cosmos PBS-TV series, about 600 million humans around the planet Earth watched Sagan’s series. Pretty good in those pre-Internet Web Facebook days.

            And remember there were about 3 billion fewer humans on Earth than there are now, so that 600 million is even more impressive, if you add in how many millions did not even have cable in 1980, like me, and I lived in the non-rural USA.

  5. RodW
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    JAC said: I’m curious, though, why Sagan wasn’t attacked and reviled in his day for “militant atheism.”

    Thats an interesting question but it might require a sociologist to answer. Perhaps its just that the number of atheist books coming out in a short time period was enough of an irritation to cause the response. Sagan was pretty much a lone voice back in those days. I have a feeling its due more to the internet. Back in the 80s religious types just didnt read Sagan’s books, and if they did they complained to their circle of friends. Because of the internet people from the red states, and people from civilization have been in an ongoing dialogue/argument about this for some time…plus there are just so many more venues for complaining.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Ah yes! The interweb – I feel you have something there. It has allowed to rapid spread of nonsense as well as sense, but without any intervening moderation.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I also think there is a new element of defensiveness now among believers. Religious people today see the writing on the wall, and know deep down that their assertions DO sound ridiculous without a social network of supportive sycophants to nod and smile blankly when they spout off about their imaginary god.
      So now, criticism of religion is personally threatening to these types, instead of the mere academic exercise it used to be.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        “Religious people today…know deep down that their assertions DO sound ridiculous…”

        Thank Tom Cruise for that. He’s pretty much the poster boy for palpable religious absurdity.

  6. Dominic
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I suspect that if we could slip back a 25 years we would see a world where rabid modern religiosity had yet to take hold. It is half a lifetime ago for me, but in my hazy memory it seems to me that people were less threatened by the views of others with respect to religion/non-religion. Not in other areas. Perhaps as we (I speak from a UK perspective) have become more liberal in views on some things such as sex or race (probably a GOOD thing), some groups have become more likely to feel assertive & wrap themselves in their faith…?

  7. Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I’m curious, though, why Sagan wasn’t attacked and reviled in his day for “militant atheism.”

    I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Sagan always sounded like he had just smoked a bowl of pot, while Dawkins sounds like he’s just drank a pot of tea.

    That, and astronomy and cosmology are entirely awe-inspiring and everything threatening is far distant. Biology is every bit as awe-inspiring, but it’s messy and the threats (disease, parasites, predation) are up close and very personal. Sagan could wax poetic about a supernova that gave birth to the elements in your body in a cataclysm that makes an H-Bomb look like static discharge, but Richard waxing poetic about evolution will always bring to mind mutant diseased predators, even if subconsciously.



    • J.J.E.
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Sagan always sounded like he had just smoked a bowl of pot, while Dawkins sounds like he’s just drank a pot of tea.


      • gluonspring
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink


    • cackalacka
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      That, and Sagan comes across as a thoughtful person.

      Dawkins and Hitchens, not so much, (and that’s putting it very charitably in the case of the latter.)

      When persuading people, it helps to not belittle folks that aren’t initially sympathetic.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        Are we discussing the same men? Because Dawkins and Hitchens are two of the most thoughtful people I can think of.

        And do you have any evidence to support your claim that pandering is an effective means to persuade people to abandon passionately-held illogical beliefs? Considering that your claim is diametrically opposed to the evidence that supports Cognitive Dissonance Theory, any evidence you might have would be well worthy of publication.



        • cackalacka
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          If Sagan were to have have lived to the last decade, would he have pimped the Iraq War?
          But then, Sagan was a scholar and not a polemicist.

          As for ‘pandering,’ there are styles and a methods to engage an unsympathetic audience that are in the grey area of rhetoric; one can make the point without being condescending or smug. Sagan was better at making the case than someone that was paid to get a rise out of people.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        Your statement about what raises ire is plausible, but your last phrase is a statement about what works and what doesn’t, and it’s one that turns out to be incorrect.

  8. Simon
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I too liked that book (lectures). In particular, Reading it I picked up on the parallels between the “search for ET” and questions about the existence of a deity. Not something I had considered before, but not as daft as it sounds. After all, a deity is a type of extraterrestrial intelligence. (Is there anyone “out there” or “up there”?) How would we know? What signals should we look for?

    If the search for/existence of ET is a scientific question, then the same should be true of the deity.

    If the universe were no different whether or not ET exists, then it may as well not exist. (“a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing can be said.”) If the universe is different depending on the existence of ET, you go look to see which way our universe is. Above all, you don’t assume you already have the answer without looking the way the world is and comparing that to the predictions of your hypotheses.

  9. Voltaire 2
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Sagan had the amazing ability to tell someone to go to hell and have them enjoy the ride at the same time. It was also noted in his major biographies that several of the ministers Sagan conversed with were deeply impressed with his knowledge of the Bible that sometimes even exceeded theirs!

    Neil deGrasse Tyson may become the successor to the throne of explaining science while dissing religion, but we shall see.

    Sagan did get attacked by the religious fanatics, but there weren’t any electronic blogs back in his day.

    I am still amazed at how Contact got made into a film considering its heroine is an atheist female astronomer looking for aliens! The makers tried to mush religion and rationality together at the end, though – and I could not stand Palmer Joss as shown in the film; he was much more tolerable and likable in the 1985 novel.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Neil deGrasse Tyson may become the successor to the throne of explaining science while dissing religion, but we shall see.



      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink


        NdGT, I love ya man, but that was not a respectable rant.

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          No joke. When it comes right down to it, he says all the same things that the horrible Gnus do, and he says what he says and he does what he does for the exact same reasons, and he’s motivated by the exact same things and has the exact same goals…but he prefers the “agnostic” label and hates the “atheist” label because he doesn’t like what those atheists are saying and doing, even though they’re saying and doing the exact same things he’s saying and doing….

          I don’t get it. Does he think those who play at zombie cannibalism will be more inclined to like somebody who doesn’t believe in any of that nonsense than somebody who’s an atheist?

          He just has to have Richard in mind when he goes on like that, and yet there’s no way he could possibly question Richard’s science education and outreach successes — successes that, arguably, overshadow even Neil’s most impressive record.

          I just don’t get it.


    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      “…but there weren’t any electronic blogs back in his day.”

      Why, when I was your age, we had to make do with hand-cranked mechanical blogs!

      • Tulse
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        Blogs! Danged newfangled contraptions! In my day we only had websites, and we were happy to have ’em!

        Now get off of my lawn!

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          Web…site? What’s that?

          …and anybody know if there’s any sign of September ending? It’s sure been a long one this year….


          • Voltaire 2
            Posted April 18, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

            Eh, you kids – in MY day we had to paint on the cave walls and sometimes we couldn’t even afford the wall!

  10. Sigmund
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    But Sagan WAS attacked for his dangerous militancy.
    The first book complaining about new atheism, published by Robert Morley in 1986, includes Sagan as one of its prime examples.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      That is interesting. I had no idea ‘New Atheism’ was so old! I never heard the term until three or four years ago. This Morey sounds like a bona fide nutter

      • Sigmund
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        I think that particular use of “New Atheism” by Morley (and yes, he was/is a nutter) didn’t catch on until the Harris-Dennet-Dawkins-Hitchens books provoked a concerted opposition from the more ‘respectable’ apologists.
        His arguments, however, seem pretty much identical to the current tired tropes.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        What’s always puzzled me about “new” atheism is that we’ve been saying these things since centuries before the invention of Christianity. Hello? Epicurus anybody?



        • bernardhurley
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          Yep, new atheism has always been around!

        • hyperdeath
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

          It’s not the message per se. It’s that large numbers of people are paying attention.

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Cast your mind back….

    In 1985 there were few ways for a ‘lecture’ to make the news. In the UK there were a few terrestrial channels, a few main newspapers, and no internet. Vicars/pastors/priests could address their (bigger) congregations weekly – and that seemed timely.

    Now, a ‘new atheist’ comments in the morning and the responses arise the same day. People can access a rich tapestry of information and debate from their own homes, in almost real time, with no wait for publication on dead trees.

    It’s the immediacy, the urgency, that is short-circuiting the religious hand-holding. No wonder it is seen as a threat.

  12. ssalbo
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    The reason he wasn’t attacked was
    That he lived and died in the last moments of the age of reason, we sometimes describe as the enlightenment. That period of time came under assault by te forces of unreason during the 2nd term of president Clinton, and have been in the ascendant since the election of Bush jr. Obama, I believe, was a gasp of revulsion against te legacy of Bush, but the culture wars are moving away from reason astoundingly fast.

    • Jer
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      The Golden Age you’re talking about never existed. Don’t kid yourself. Sagan lived during a time when religious people were using religion to justify segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. Sagan lived during a time when religious people didn’t have to hide the fact that they wanted gays and lesbians treated as second class citizens – the MAJORITY agreed with them!

      We are not living in a time where “reason” is in notable decline compared to previous generations. We are living in a time with unprecedented transparency and distribution of opinions, though, which makes people think that the world is getting worse. It isn’t – it was my a lot of measures WORSE 30 years ago than it is today. The terrible news just gets wider distribution these days. If anything things are on an uptick for those who see religion as a dead-end – the dead-enders always fight the hardest when they start to realize that they’re on the losing side.

      • ssalbo
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Normally I’d agree, but you have to look at the worldwide impact of fundamentalism, not just here in the United States. Fundamentalist battles are not only shaking the Muslim world; the Vatican has taken a decidedly more conservative tone, and Israel is wracked by internal strife between secular and religious Jews. So this is bigger than just the USA.

  13. Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I remember Sagan promoting the beauty and wonder of the universe on TV but remember no mention of his atheism and no criticism of him for it. When I got older and read all his books his atheism impressed me as much as his science. Still, he received very little criticism. I advise those who have not read his books to read them all, and reread them if you have not done so recently. Inspirational!

    The radical right did not yet have enough nerve to attack such an influential and gentle intellect. Were Sagan alive today he would be their number one target and Santorum would have another reason to vomit.

  14. Jim
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    “The demon-haunted world” converted me from a mushy-brained agnostic to an atheist. It pushed me towards the slippery slope of critical thinking.

    He was careful to avoid a frontal attack against organized religions. This probably gave him access some of the believers who are now scared of God Delusion.

    Just shows there is more than one way to skin a cat (sorry Jerry!).

  15. Gordon
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    He never called himself an atheist and publicly denied the label, so maybe that made him seem harmless to them.

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink


      I wasn’t sure but I never recalled him using the word “atheist” in public either. While I think there are many reasons for his reception (no internet, astronomy vs biology, sounding like he just smoked a bong, etc.) I do think this is one of them. Believers seem not to feel threatened so much if you believe in some kind of Higher Power, however distant, abstract, remote, or unacknowledged. Even agnostics don’t strike fear and loathing into believers the way the word “atheist” does, I guess because they can imagine that an agnostic is a glass 1% full of religion, or the possibility of religion, instead of 99% empty. If you don’t make it really clear to them there is a tendency to assume that you’re a diest or agnostic, that maybe you’re “searching” for God and will find him soon. And even the religious criticize religion sometimes.

      That said, Sagan was instrumental in my own loss of faith. So they should have felt threatened by him.

      • Voltaire 2
        Posted April 18, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        If you read his one SF novel, Contact, Sagan is basically looking for God and finds Him/Her in the value of pi. This was not in the 1997 film.

  16. Chad
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    A wonderful book, wherein Sagan’s arguments drove a giant axe into the cracks of my religious belief. I disagreed with him strongly, but I could only attack his conclusions. I stopped reading halfway through, and a year later hungrily devoured the book in a day…as an atheist.

  17. DV
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    There has always been people who were critical of religion and/or skeptical of (your particular) God. The religious did not generally deem them provocative enough unless they also push evolution specifically. Disbelief in God can be dismissed by the religious as mere blindness to revelation. But evolution is something else. Evolution so simply and powerfully explains away the precious role of God as Maker that the religious fears it rightly as corrosive and cannot help but respond.

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      The most vivid part of the Cosmos series for me as a kid was the evolution part. It was the first really clear exposition of Darwin’s theory I was ever exposed to. The crude little animation of evolution even helped my kid’s imagination a little. It seemed believable for the first time to me. So I think he was hitting the evolution button, at least some.

      The second most vivid part was this:

      “Why not save a step?” was like religion-acid in my brain, eating away at my faith. These two scenes were the first major jolt pushing me away from my faith, and it slipped in like honey.

      Watching this again, I notice that, in addition to seeming stoned (as good a description as I can think of), he comes across as sympathetic to religion. Dismissing it, but sympathetic. He says “these are not easy questions”. He doesn’t laugh at you or state that his aim is to destroy religion. He asks questions and suggests an answer. I think these are significant psychological factors. Whether they enhance his effectiveness at promoting atheism or diminish it, I won’t argue, but surely this way of talking is easier to stomach if you are religious.

      • gluonspring
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        This video played over and over in my mind for the subsequent years it took me to leave the faith:

        As threatening as it was to my beliefs, it sucked me in.

        • ladyh42
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          True story: I was just watching this video you posted when my husband says beside me,”Are we there yet?” to which I could only reply “Nope, just one step along the way!”

      • DV
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Cosmos was the first clear exposition of evolution for me too. I didn’t see the show; I read the book.

        Couldn’t say that was the most vivid part, as pretty much the whole book was an eye-opener for me to the.. ahem.. magic of reality.

  18. Physicalist
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I asked Mooney and Kirshenbaum this a while ago. (Back when they had their Discover Intersection blog, and before they banned me.

    In their “Unscientific America” they hold up Sagen as a model of a civil pro-science voice, by contrast to the strident new Atheists like Dawkins. I asked for their opinion of _Demon Haunted World_, which seems to me a pretty “militant” anti-religion book.

    Of course I got no response.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Funny you should mention that. Asking this question about Sagan was exactly what got me banned there back then. 🙂

  19. physicalist
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    No gravitar for typo? 😦

  20. Hempenstein
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Excellent. I think I’ve said here in the past that I wouldn’t expect even the most adamant creationist to take his Buick to a preacher when the transmission needs attention (I suspect the % Buick ownership among creationists runs high), so why do they trust them on biology?

    • Filippo
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Yea, verily, the laying on of hands.

      Ooooooouuutt Spiiiiiirriiiitt!

  21. Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    In early 2008 the Reasonable Doubts podcasters put together a “bizarro” version of Carl Sagan as a Christian apologist. It’s hilariously funny. There’s a slightly abbreviated version at

    but the full podcast was no. 11 on March 13, 2008, appearing here http://feeds.feedburner.com/reasonabledoubts/Msxh

    You need to scroll down to the relevant date and click on “Play Now”. It begins around 33’30” and ends around 46’20”.

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I’ll have nightmares about that.

  22. DrDroid
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Sagan is one of my heroes. I read Demon Haunted World and Varieties of Scientific Experience years ago, more than once. His arguments against religious belief kind of sneak up on a reader because he just seems to be asking questions (with devastating impact!). The overall tone of his books is more gentle than say, The God Delusion, or Richard Dawkins’ public speeches in which he advocates outright ridicule of religious beliefs. I get the feeling that Richard is simply tired of the inanity of religion and its obstruction of science, and is determined not to go to his grave without doing his utmost to combat it, and to leave behind a foundation that will continue that mission into the future. Sagan and Dawkins lived in different eras: Sagan was pre-9/11 while Richard lived through 9/11, and that may (partly) help explain Richard’s more militant tone. If Sagan had lived through 9/11 he might well be a New Atheist at this point.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Carl was more gentle, however we need warriors right along the continuum. Sagan and Dawkins have quite different personalities and different priorities. Dawkins is ready, willing and able to take the front forward position, and is therefore the more obvious contender. Religion has expected respect, and is shocked that someone is saying that the emperor has no clothes. Its obvious to those of us lucky enough to be on this list, however for others, unconsciously it is still 1700.

      • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        Ah, but Richard isn’t merely pointing out that the emperor is naked, but that he’s not there at all, and that the official portrait is of a hideously-ugly naked man covered in his own filth.

        He’s exactly right, too, which infuriates the godbots all the more.



        • Voltaire 2
          Posted April 18, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

          Sagan wasn’t gentle when it came to UFOs. At one lecture he gave some young punk asked about flying saucvers and Sagan pretty much took him apart verbally for being just so plain ignorant and gullible.

  23. Aaron Ferguson
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Actually the lectures were delivered at the University of Glasgow – not Edinburgh – and I was there! Our group only got into the main lecture hall for two of the lectures and had to make do with a video feed in an overspill room for the rest, but they were terrific. Shortly afterwards I realised that I had become an atheist.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      You’re right–I just looked it up, and changed the above. Thanks, and lucky you to see them live. Pity they weren’t put on video.

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    From Adler’s piece:

    Sagan’s insistence on dealing only with “”evidence” put his correspondents at a seeming disadvantage, at least until the time Campbell asked him, “”Carl, do you believe in love?”

    “”And he said, “Of course I do.’ He was very much in love with his wife.

    “”And I said, “Can you prove love exists?’

    “”And at first he said, “Well, certainly,’ but eventually he agreed that love, like faith, has something unprovable at its core, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

    Love is a behavior that is quite observable, but also an emotion which is the more powerful characteristic for the individual. Maybe Sagan didn’t have the insight offered by today’s neuroscience, where you can point to similar patterns of brain activity in individuals.

    In other words, today the gap is practically closed. Maybe we need a Brain Visualization era to go with the Enlightenment, and Sagan may have just about missed that.

    Pity: “””Carl never wanted to believe,” she replies fiercely. “”He wanted to know.””

    • DV
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Remember you are reading Adler’s retelling of Campbell’s account of the exchange with Sagan.

      The statement (made by Campbell?) that “love, like faith, has something unprovable at its core, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”, (putting aside whether Sagan actually agreed with this as written) confuses the physiology of faith with the truth-claims of faith. It’s basically a deepity.

      • Voltaire 2
        Posted April 18, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        Love is an integral part of the mating/reproductive process. It ensures that a couple who makes a baby hangs around long enough so their offsprings gets to go on and have one or more of their own.

        I know it sounds cold and there are plenty of examples of parents who are lousy at the job, but that’s what love REALLY is.

        • derekw
          Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

          So after my offspring reproduces I no longer love them? You don’t even address phileo or agape love.

  25. phosphoros99
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I looked at the video by Carl Sagan.

    Much of it is simply fantasy and wishful thinking presented as fact.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      You again?

      Which Sagan video? There were none in Jerry’s original post, and more than one in the comments.

      Care to offer an example of something he presented as fact that you think is fantasy?

      Care to offer up actual evidence that demonstrates how Sagan was mistraken?

      No, of course you won’t. You haven’t yet….


      • phosphoros99
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        We could start with the first 40 seconds

        of the video on evolution

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

          And you could start by actually answering the questions I asked.

          What, specifically, is incorrect in that video, and what is your evidence to support your assertion?


          • phosphoros99
            Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

            I put it to you that Carl Sagan provided no scientific facts on the origin of life in the first 40 seconds of the video on evolution.

            That aspect of his presentation is pure fantasy.

            • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

              Eh, no.

              Just picking from the end of the first forty seconds, he stated that we did not evolve from plants.

              Are you asserting that we did evolve from plants?

              Of course, in your case, you encompass the cognitive capabilities of a cabbage, so I can certainly comprehend whence the confusion.


              • phosphoros99
                Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

                “Just picking from the end of the first forty seconds, he stated that we did not evolve from plants”.

                Why not respond to the statement.

                “I put it to you that Carl Sagan provided no scientific facts on the origin of life in the first 40 seconds of the video on evolution.

                That aspect of his presentation is pure fantasy”.

              • Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

                Reading comprehension much?

                It is a scientific fact that humans did not evolve from plants, though we do share a common ancestor. Dr. Sagan made that statement in the first 40 seconds of the video on evolution.

                You are therefore demonstrated to be the one who is fantasizing.

                About an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard, if I’m not mistraken….


            • bernardhurley
              Posted April 17, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

              I’ve not seen this video by I’m curious. Why would one expect scientific facts about the origins of life in a video about evolution. The subject might be mentioned in passing but that would not be mandatory.

              • phosphoros99
                Posted April 17, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

                When combined with his statement on God or the universe as first cause in the other video Sagan’s presentation on what the phenomenon of evolution represents is simply wishful thinking not scientific fact.

                I would argue that there are at least two infra-structural requirements for “descent with modification” :

                1.The concept of a universal constructor as conceived by mathematician John von Neumann.

                2.Instructions for building the bodies of living organisms (semantic information).

                It has never been demonstrated that these can arise simply from the laws of physics and chemistry so Sagan’s assumption that they did is simply that – an assumption.

                Wishful thinking not science.

              • Posted April 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

                I would argue that there are at least two infra-structural requirements for “descent with modification”

                Oh, you would, would you? Then please do!

                It’s not clear to me how either of those criteria are at all relevant to evolution. What aspects of evolution can be better explained by this model than by the contemporary synthesis? How is it more parsimonious? What testible predictions does it make?

                Unless you can answer those kinds of questions, it is your ideas that are wishful thinking not science!



              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                I would be interested to know why you think your (1) or (2) are even reasonable requirements for the possibility of evolution. However I will make some comments:

                1. Von Neumann’s universal constructor is a purely mathematical concept but such things must exist because of the existence of a universal Turing machine (also a mathematical concept.) In programming terms this amounts to writing a program that has its own source code as output. Such programs are known as Quines, after the philosopher W.V.O. Quine, and often very simple, given the right environment. For instance a Quine in Common Lisp is:

                ((lambda (x) (list x (list ‘quote x))) ‘(lambda (x) (list x (list ‘quote x))))

                Some hackers make a hobby of producing new ones. It’s not that difficult, but some people go to great lengths to make them interesting. The winner of the “Obfuscated C” competition some years ago wrote one in C that read like a love letter written in verse.

                I see no reason why, given time, a “hardware” universal constructor could not arise by chance. However such a thing would be useless for evolution as it would only produce exact replicas of itself. What is needed for descent with modifications is a system that makes mistakes. Such a thing would be much simpler than a universal constructor.

                2. I think you are confused about the relationship between syntax and semantics. A Quine does not mean to produce a replica of itself, that is simply what it does. Now from the point of view of the person who wrote it, it contains semantic information, this is because they intended it to do what it does. However they are simple enough for a random program generator on a super-computer to come up with many of them. Such programs could not be said to contain semantic information even if they look as if they do. In other words, your requirement 2, begs the question as to the existence of a designer.

              • Posted April 17, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

                Eep! HTML close tag fail. Sorry.

              • Posted April 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

                Have you watched the video clip (posted by gluonspring on April 16, 2012 at 10:47 am) yet? Sagan does describe the formation of a “cell” membrane that provided a home for “the ancestors of DNA”.

                I was expecting P-99 to mention this in response to Ben’s comments. It’s kind of speculative, if vague and logically necessary.


              • Posted April 18, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                I came across this, out of professional interest, but it seemed to gel with your second point above, Bernard.

                “Inside the protocol, everything is syntactic. Outside the protocol, semantics matter.”

                So, within the biochemical “protocol” of evolution, there is only syntax.


  26. Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a quote from Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World:

    “In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them the all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped…[However] if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition ‐ even when it seems to be doing a little good ‐ we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom”

    Not exactly the words of a ‘militant atheist’ and it doesn’t sound like he would aprove of Dawkins’ approach of public ridicule.

    • CJ
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

      Carl Sagan was a New Yorker who never lived to see the events of 911. If he had, we might have read “The End of Faith” by Carl Sagan and supported “The Carl Sagan Foundation for Reason and Science”

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 12:32 am | Permalink

      I think this is the relevant point: “Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.”

      I’d suggest that a temperate approach has proven no more effective than the silently assenting one, skepticism is still considered impolite and supporters of superstition and pseudoscience still largely eschew science and rigorous thinking. Bluntness is the only viable option. Mock what deserves to be mocked.

      Yet I don’t think that even (?) Dawkins is unkind when speaking to individuals directly, even in his allegedly “cruel” response to an audience member that I’ve posted here before.

      It’s like speaking to a hopelessly infatuated friend. At some point you just have to say, “She [or he] really doesn’t love you.”


    • Woody Tanaka
      Posted April 17, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      “Not exactly the words of a ‘militant atheist’ and it doesn’t sound like he would aprove of Dawkins’ approach of public ridicule.”

      I disagree. The key point phrase here is, “If their culture has not given them the all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness.”

      No modern person in the western world, with access to all that the Internet and modern scholorship has to offer, can claim to not have the tool they need. As such, we should not spare them our criticism out of a sense of misguided kindness, simply because they choose to toss away those tools and live in denial.

  27. stevehayes13
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    The vehemence of the contemporary attacks on atheism are a result of the fact that the theists know they have lost the argument and are losing believers all the time. They know that many self professed believers do not believe. They know the young generation has a much higher percentage of non-believers than previous generations; and that those non-believers tend to be the smartest and best educated, the likely leaders of their generation. They know the rise of secularism is unstoppable and they cannot turn back the clock. So, they hi-jack parties, set up think tanks, create museums, fill the Internet with apologist web sites, etc – it is all nothing but an hysterical rear-guard action.

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink

      What you write there would be taken by a believer as mere posturing, talking ourselves up, etc – except this is precisely what happened recently in the UK: the RDF did polls showing a lot of believers don’t meaningfully believe at all, and the churches went batshit.

      • stevehayes13
        Posted April 21, 2012 at 4:36 am | Permalink

        I know. My assertions are all based on facts.

  28. Solomon Wagstaff
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    I recall being greatly entertained by Sagan’s various takedowns of Velikovsky, in the same way that I enjoy really acerbic negative reviews of movies or books, even ones that I liked. Later on, a few books came out which tried to defend Velikovsky, mostly complaining about Sagan’s ‘tone’. The Velikovsky program, it seemed to me, was an attempt to gin up some historical evidence for many of the apocalyptic events described in the OT, so in that sense, Sagan was doing a Dawkins-like job

  29. DrDroid
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Sagan’s arguments against religion were every bit as devastating as any put forward by the New Atheists, but he wasn’t spearheading a movement to strip religion of its status and authority. Prior to 9/11 most scientists viewed religion with disdain, but mostly couldn’t and didn’t want to be bothered with it. Or at least that would be me: religion bored me, there were too many more important things to be concerned about (like science). That changed after 9/11, which brought the dangers of religion into sharp focus and ignited the New Atheist movement. As a result the world’s religious institutions feel they are under attack (they’re right!) and they are fighting to retain their authority.

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